I don’t know if it’s worth the time but I’m thinking of sitting down and analyzing what it is about the genres of games I prefer that attracts me and keeps me far beyond the period when other games in other genres don’t. Case in point: the city builder genre.

I’ve always played city builders in the same way I’ve always played RPGs. I started with the original SimCity (and all of the Sim-followups), and my wife and I played a lot of couch-co-op Caesar III when we were dating. The genre kind of dried up for a while, but has been staging a comeback for the past few years. I recently picked up Anno 1800 but the scenario-based gameplay (and possibly Victorian aesthetic) didn’t really hook me for long. This past weekend I jumped into the free play for Surviving Mars, though, with much more pleasing results.

I got my ass to Mars

Surviving Mars is not a new game, but I remember hearing folks speak positively about it (people, not the kinds of folks who leave comments on Steam). As you might imagine, you are tasked with setting up a sustainable colony on Mars. Whereas a lot of city-builders require you to keep people in your city happy, here you also have to turn a profit; you import new citizens and any resources you can’t find or create on Mars, and you return rare resources to your expedition sponsors in exchange for more funding and research capital.

I think this game is “doing it” for me because there’s no “invisible hand” pushing me towards progress. Also, it’s sci-fi. You don’t start with colonists, but a rocket full of drones and autonomous vehicles which means that you don’t have to worry about keeping people alive or always having something in the production queue to keep the population from rioting. Using some raw materials packed into the transport, you have to start by setting up production facilities to extract what useful resources you can with what little you have. This amounts to harvesting concrete and surface metals which form the basis of other entry-level factories and producers. You also have to scan the sectors near your landing zone to reveal deposits of underground resources like water and rare metals so you can plan your future expansion. When ready, you can build a dome and its support machinery, construct the living space inside, and then request a rocket full of colonists from Earth. At this point, the game shifts from commanding neigh-indestructible robots to keeping your colonists not only alive, but comfortable, productive, and reproducing.

The Drone Crew 2050 Class Photo

Surviving Mars isn’t a “survival” game in the traditional sense, but like other city builders you “survive” by keeping all the plates spinning. This game has a lot of plates to spin. For example, your initial rocket can be returned to Earth, but you need to produce fuel. You do this by constructing a vaporator to generate a small amount of water, and then by making a refinery. Both need to be connected to a power source (wind turbine, solar, or other type of generator), and these two facilities need to be connected by a water and O2 pipe. This produces fuel which the drones will load into the rocket until the rocket is fully fueled and ready to depart. If you have a colony that has mined some resources, you can ship those back for profit. Conversely, if you are missing resources like polymer or electronic parts — which you need early in the game but probably won’t be producing at the time — you can request a supply drop. All of this has a cost, footed by your benefactor, so it’s not unlimited.

And you thought YOUR neighborhood was rural.

You also have a research tree which I learned is randomized in order each time you start a new game. There’s a lot of useful tech in here, like survey beacons which don’t use power, or drones that move 20% faster, rockets that require less fuel or pack more cargo, different in-dome buildings to build, and even PR benefits that bring in more money and more colonist applicants. The bulk of the buildings you need to make a colony is provided for you from the start, but you can unlock more advanced, bonus buildings through research. You gain research points through your benefactor, which makes becoming a productive colony that much more important.


I liked the game enough that I picked up the Mega-Pack from Steam which included the base game, some DLC, and the Season Pass which is timely considering Paradox just released a new “Terraforming” expansion very recently (last week?). This new addition allows you to go all Schwarzenegger-in-Total Recall by creating a better atmosphere so your colonists can move out of their domes and into a newly greened Mars. All told, I paid $22, which to me seems like a steal.

I think what I like the most about Surviving Mars is that it doesn’t try and layer unique concepts on top of an already laborious system. You need to build producers which generate supplies needed to create more advanced structures which are needed to keep the ball rolling. The mechanics are solid and proven, so Paradox didn’t mess with them. The entry game, though, is a great way of introducing new players to the game: your drones can get damaged, but I don’t know if they can die, so all you have to really do is sit back and debate the merits of trying to expand on your own or sending for a supply drop from Earth. Take as long as you like; the drones have no sense of time and never get bored. Once you move into the colonist phase, common sense is the order of the day. Keep your people happy and make sure they don’t asphyxiate on an alien world and you should do OK. All in all, it’s not turning out to be all that stressful, except when a dust storm trashes your solar panels, or a meteor strike takes your turbines offline.

I think if I get bored I’ll start drafting posts on the pros and cons of my favorite genres and what makes them so, maybe starting with the city builder genre since it’s fresh in my mind this week.


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